How Do Children Learn from Failure?

Bryan Nixon

Bryan Nixon

When we were blueprinting the latest addition to Whitby’s campus, a group of fourth graders approached school leadership with a bold statement. These five students stood in a room with the architect and the Whitby leadership team and said, “We would like the new building to be greener and more sustainable.”

We were stunned—and impressed. It’s rare that elementary school students believe enough in their convictions to take a principled stand. And even more rare for them to take the risk that adults would shoot them down.

As parents and educators, it’s tempting to want to insulate our children. We want them to feel the confidence that they can do anything that they desire and that the world is their oyster. Yet the best way to create confident, resilient children may actually be to give them the opportunity to fail and to face real challenges.

When children are immersed in a culture where failure is celebrated for the lessons it contains, the world becomes less frightening and they feel better prepared to take on real world challenges.

When children are young, they have a natural ability to bounce back. Just watch a baby try to learn to walk to see their natural “can do” attitude. They’ll start by pulling themselves to their feet by holding onto any nearby furniture (or hands). Then will come the first tentative steps. During the process, the child will fall down over and over again. Eventually, however, everything will come together and that child will be racing around the house.

Yet as children grow older, they can become risk averse. This especially happens if educators and parents define success by a narrow set of standards, such as how a child performs on standardized tests or the grades they achieve. If a student feels that they’re only successful if they receive an A on a test, they start looking for the one right answer and shy away from taking a chance on a more creative solution.

How Do Children Learn From Failure?

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
- John A. Shedd

Schools that teach that there is only one right answer and one way to solve a problem are not giving children the skills they need to overcome challenges in the real world. The most successful people are those who are able to see multiple approaches to a problem and bounce back from failure.

At Whitby, we believe it’s more important for students to learn than to get the correct answer 100% of the time. When students don’t succeed at first, we ask them what they learned from the experience and how they can improve the next time.

We want students to feel that they can step outside their comfort zones, learn to approach challenges from different perspectives and apply what they’ve learned to different situations.

Definition of Audacity in article about How Children Learn From Failure

At Whitby, we try to support students when they take risks—whether they’re big or small. That means we listened to those fourth graders when they challenged school leadership about Whitby’s commitment to sustainability. And they were right.

We looked again at the blueprints, and found more ways we could make the new addition more sustainable. Today our students come to school every day to classrooms with solar panels and solar tubes that weren’t in the original plan.

A recent example of a smaller risk that students take at Whitby was when two Lower School students found themselves struggling with a math problem. After careful reflection, they decided that the teacher must have given them an incorrect answer—and they wanted to prove they had the correct answer.

Both students threw themselves into learning about the math problem. They approached another teacher and asked for her help in learning about the math behind the original problem. Then they approached the first teacher with their theory.

It turned out that the original answer was correct—but it was an incredible learning experience. By trying to prove their theory, those two students learned far more about math than they would have just by reading a textbook or memorizing a formula.

Why We Want Students to Take Risks at Whitby

If we want students to be prepared to grapple with real world issues, we have to start by helping them understand that there are multiple ways to approach an issue, that there may be multiple solutions, and that—even if they do not succeed in finding a solution —they can apply what they’ve learned to be more successful in the future.

Taking risks also teaches kids a valuable lesson about perspective. When kids discover that people can look at the same situation through different lenses, they realize that there are multiple ways to approach a challenge.

If we want to help our students reach their potential, we must help them understand the incredible teaching power of getting it wrong.

We have to teach students that it’s not about the failure, but about taking that risk in the first place. As we’re teaching students at Whitby, we frequently ask:

  • How can we support them to step out of comfort zones?
  • How can we approach things from a different perspective?
  • How do we assist them in understanding that multiple people can be right at the same time?
  • What did they learn about themselves from failure (or this challenge)?
  • What did they learn about the concept from failure (their struggles)?
  • How do they apply what they’ve learned to a different situation?

By giving children the opportunity to take risks in a safe, supportive and challenging environment, we can help them realize that failure is merely part of the learning process.

We believe it’s important to empower children to understand that taking risks, big or small, is crucial in their learning journey.

To learn more about the Whitby difference, schedule a tour of our campus or click below to read our ebook, N-8 Versus K-12 Schools: Which Strategy Will Get Your Child the Best Possible Outcome?

Link to download the "N-8 versus K-12 Schools" Ebook
Bryan Nixon

Bryan Nixon

Bryan Nixon is now the Head of School at TASIS England, having previously served the Whitby School community for 5 wonderful years. The 'Life of Bryan' continues to be an adventure in many ways. From Belfast to Bavaria and Cardiff to Connecticut, and now onto London, his learning journey has proved to be a source of wonder and exploration through each opportunity and challenge enjoyed. Bryan shares this journey with his family and the school communities that he serves. He draws inspiration from the multiple perspectives provided by students, parents and colleagues that continue to enrich his learning and expand his horizons.